The Wamogo classroom libraries have many new titles, so perhaps an explanation as to how these titles are allowed into the classrooms at Wamogo for independent reading is in order. Most of the books in the classroom libraries are books already available in the school library’s main collection. Unfortunately, like most schools, there have been, on occasion, challenges to titles taught or made available in classrooms in grades 7-12. Book challenges are made when a parent or guardian objects to content in a book, and there are some titles that receive challenges more frequently than others.
There are two steps that our English Department members employ in order to meet the requirements of a reading curriculum with the requests of parents or guardians. The first step is to offer students a choice in selecting independent reading or to offer an alternate core text. Because of our extensive used book collection, (see our book flood!), our English teachers are often able to offer another title instead.
The second step employed is the focus on lessons that develop skills rather then then lessons that dwell on content. Our curriculum incorporates activities and prompts that address similar themes or topics, so that the difference in titles does not impact a lesson. Prompts such as, “What is the role of the main character in his or her family? Does that role change?” are designed so that students do not always need to be reading the same text in order to participate. For example, the Contemporary Native American unit in Grade 11 is centered on Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees as the core text. Titles offered as alternates or for independent reading include Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or Reservation Blues, Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heat at Wounded Knee, and Codetalkers by Joseph Bruchac. Students can choose a different book in this unit and still answer the prompts and participate in activities individually or in literature circle groups. One topic that connects these titles is how Native Americans view others and how they are viewed by others in society.
Unfortunately, book challenges are often in schools made against many of the books that are in the classical canon of literature.
A YouTube compilation quickly lists the top 100 banned books:
In fact, it would be impossible to teach a survey of American literature without incorporating at least one challenged title; most are on the Advanced Placement Literature recommendation’s list. The American Library Association (ALA) keeps a record of book challenges throughout the United States. There are lists of books that have been banned; one such web page is titled The Top Ten Banned or Challenged Classics.
The reasons for challenging a book are as varied as the books themselves. The entire Harry Potter series has been challenged for a number of reasons dealing with witchcraft; one challenge called the series “evil” attempt to indoctrinate children in the Wicca religion. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has been repeatedly challenged for containing profanity. Mark Twain’s Huck Finn was recently challenged in Connecticut for the repeated use of a derogatory term. These challengesdiffer from the specific objections leveled against Nabokov’s Lolita which has been banned for the obsessive relationship of the middle-aged Humbert Humbert’s with the 12 year old “Lolita”. These examples illustrate the breadth of topics than can result in book challenges or having the book banned entirely.
As a result, most teachers “self-censor”, choosing materials that they consider not objectionable, harmful, or insensitive for students. However, there are instances where a teacher may not anticipate a challenge; what one group of parents deems inappropriate may not concern another group of parents.
Our solution is to offer a student choice in reading materials which necessitates that more titles representing a wide variety of reading levels are made available to students. Book choices for students are often advertised on websites such as Livebinders or on a class wiki which is public. Concerns about the merits of a book should be weighed by all stakeholders- parents, students and teachers- if there should be a question about a student selecting a text. Having a title available may not be enough of a reason to incorporate the book into a lesson plan or unit. Confronting concerns immediately in the teaching of any text is a priority.
In order to draw attention to book challenges in schools and public libraries, the American Library Association publicizes a Banned Books Week. This year, banned book week will run from September 24- October 1, 2011.They organize activities and materials in order “to highlight the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings.” Educators are often the first to encounter challenges for book removal. Offering choice may be the most successful way to accommodate the parent and still engage the reader.